I’ve mentioned before that the SAT includes a number of writing questions that check whether you’re inclined to overuse the passive voice. And I’ve mentioned that I don’t think it’s a very fair thing to assess, but there is a reason why the College Board built it into the test. The passive tends to make sentences wordy and awkward, so it’s best to avoid it if possible.
But that awkwardness can show up even without a passive structure, and it’s a key difference between a middling SAT essay and a high-scoring essay. If your writing sounds unnatural, it really works against you.
I’m going to give you a simple technique for avoiding that kind of awkwardness.
What’s the action?
Every sentence in English includes a verb. But there are basically two different kinds of verbs: connecting verbs and acting verbs.
Connecting verbs don’t carry a whole lot of meaning. Instead, they just join the pieces of the sentence. “Be” is by far the most important connecting verb. There’s no action, really. It’s just a kind of glue.
Some examples of sentences with connecting verbs:
My hobby is collecting other people’s receipts.
I have a stash of thousands of them under my bed.
Not many people do as much digging through trash as I do.
These kinds of verbs are important—we couldn’t form sentences without them—but they’re inherently weak. They’re just not very descriptive.
If you use the action for the verb, you’ll usually have a stronger sentence. It’ll generally be more concise, too.
I collect other people’s receipts.
I’ve stashed thousands of them under my bed.
Not many people dig through trash as much as I do.
Notice that each of those acting verbs was included in the first set of sentences, but in different forms. They’re totally vital to the meaning, so when we replaced them with connecting verbs, we had find other places for them to fit into. Why bother?
Over-formality in SAT essays
Yes, you should write formally for your SAT essay. But you have to be natural. Students often go to far, and while trying to sound more academic, they throw in crazy constructions. And guess what…more often than not, those clunky sentences have a connecting verb in the middle and an action verb transformed into some other part of the sentence.
Fix them by finding the action and making it the main verb.
✗ The theory has many people who disagree with it.
✓ Many people disagree with the theory.
✗ Students who do a lot of reading tend to have better writing.
✓ Students who read a lot tend to write better.
✗ The crime which he was found guilty of was shaving the school mascot’s costume.
✓ He was found guilty of shaving the school mascot’s costume.
Notice in that last one that there’s still a passive structure—“was convicted of”—but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s more important that the action is the main verb.
Hard to understand = bad
If you think a sentence sounds academic (and therefore good) because it’s hard to follow, then think twice. Why is it tough? Is it because of the structure or the meaning? Unnecessarily complicated sentence structures are not a good thing.
So make it clear.